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The Wenzhou debacle gets even weirder

The furor over the Saturday night train crash last weekend in eastern China that killed at least 39 people and injured at least 192 has left the Chinese government scrambling to control public reaction. But its efforts may be doing the ruling Communist party more harm than good. Here's a roundup of some of the most interesting bits coming out about the crash:

Official reports from earlier this week said the crash was caused by a lightning strike. Today, however, the state-affiliated Xinhua News Agency is reporting testimony from the head of the Shanghai Railway Bureau at a meeting of the central government's State Council saying that the blame lies with design flaws in the railway's signaling system. The revelation confirms questions aired publicly by a number of Chinese railway experts wondering why safety mechanisms didn't kick in after the lightning strike to avert disaster (Caixin, Wall Street Journal).

Meanwhile, five days after the crash, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao finally made a public appearance today in Wenzhou to address the disaster. He blamed his earlier absence on an illness, which knocked him out of action for the last eleven days. His explanation didn't sit well with a number of users of the popular Chinese microblogging site, Weibo, who circulated official press photos showing Wen up and about with visiting state leaders between July 18 and July 24. But the confusion may boil down to a simple reporting error; the original Xinhua report appears to have misquoted Wen in saying that he had been in the hospital, while the premier said only that he was sick and in bed.

Whatever the reason for Wen's absence, his appearance means that the central government is taking seriously the crash -- and not a moment too soon. The Ministry of Railways (MOR) has come under fire from citizens, journalists, and even fellow government officials for its handling of the crisis. At a press conference on Monday, MOR spokesman Wang Yongping elicited howls from journalists with his efforts to explain why initial state reports about the cleanup were proven false (see item #13). Meanwhile, stories from the Wenzhou City News and the Beijing News describe how Wenzhou officials clashed with MOR officials over cleanup at the crash site. One local security official told the City News how he disobeyed orders on Sunday afternoon to bury the trains (translation by China-watching blog Shanghaiist):

That afternoon I received orders to bring the train carriages on the track down to the foot of the bridge for clearing. I refused and said we would continue to work on the carriages on the railway track or wherever they are. What would we do if there was still life in any of the trains? What would we say to their families? I held fast to my ground, but I also faced a lot of pressure. In the end, we received clearance from the command central to continue working on the carriages in their original locations.

Hours after his act of disobedience, rescuers discovered two-year-old toddler Xiang Weiyi alive in the wreckage. Despite that discovery, photo evidence suggests that authorities have since gone ahead with plans to take the train apart and bury it. Guangdong-based Southern Weekend reported on its Weibo account that officials took a similar course with a crash that killed 19 last year and didn't even bother to remove all the human remains.

In addition to their content, the Beijing News and Wenzhou City News stories also point to the government's struggles to control the media narrative. Propaganda directives from directly after the crash called for reporting on the accident "to use ‘in the face of great tragedy, there's great love' as a theme," according to a leaked copy posted on China Digital Times. The Xiang Weiyi story fit perfectly into this narrative. But plenty of journalists have taken a sharper tone. The most striking deviation from central directives has come on China Central Television, where three news anchors separately called out central authorities on their role in the crisis. News anchor Qiu Qiming had the sharpest words (translation, again, by Shanghaiist):

If nobody can be safe, do we still want this speed? Can we drink a glass of milk that's safe? Can we stay in an apartment that will not fall? Can the roads we travel on in our cities not collapse? Can we travel in safe trains? And if and when a major accident does happen, can we not be in a hurry to bury the trains? Can we afford the people a basic sense of security? China, please slow down. If you're too fast, you may leave the souls of your people behind.

And there could be more to come. A rumor that the real number of fatalities is 216, not 39, is spreading like wildfire on Weibo. It's important to note that the rumor is very much unsubstantiated; most users cite the number as coming from an anonymous source at an insurance company. Nonetheless, the University of Hong Kong's China Media Project tweets:

If real # of fatalities proves to be as dramatically different as web users are claiming, the impact on government credibility could be massive.

Whether or not the rumor proves true, the speed at which it is circulating underscores just how sensitive a topic this has become for the Chinese government. Look out for further developments in this story in the coming days.

STR/AFP/Getty Images

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Is Iran working with al Qaeda? And is there a Qatari connection?

The Treasury Department today named six alleged al Qaeda operatives that it said were members of a network that worked to facilitate the moving of "money, facilitators and operatives from across the Middle East to South Asia" in cooperation with the government of Iran.

The department's press release said that Ezedin Abdel Aziz Khalil, a Syrian living in Iran, was collecting money from Gulf donors and using it to send cash to al Qaeda in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as dispatching "extremist recruits for al Qaeda from the Gulf to Pakistan and Afghanistan via Iran." (If so, he's not doing such a great job, as al Qaeda's branch in Iraq has recently complained of going broke, and U.S. counterterrorism officials claim the group is on the verge of defeat in Pakistan.)

Washington has long accused Iran of meddling in Afghanistan, and more recently has blamed the Islamic Republic for a stepped-up campaign against U.S. troops in Iraq. (A few months back, I met with a UAE military official who made the same accusation about Iran supplying weapons and money to anti-coalition fighters in Afghanistan.) It's also been widely reported that senior al Qaeda figures are under some sort of house arrest in Iran, possibly as bargaining chips -- but that Iran may have recently allowed a few of those operatives to travel to Afghanistan and Pakistan.

I was particularly interested in this latest announcement by the Treasury, because it names two individuals in Qatar, where I am temporarily based.

One of those named, Salim Hasan Khalifa Rashid al-Kuwari, was also mentioned in an Amnesty International action alert in March as one of three individuals subject to arbitrary detention whom Sultan al-Khalaifi -- someone the NGO described as a blogger and human rights activist -- was trying to get released. Khalaifi was mysteriously arrested on March 1 by "a number of state security agents,” according to Amnesty, along with three other unnamed Qataris, and seems to have disappeared into a black hole.

At the time, I remember thinking the case was odd, because Khalaifi had only written four blog posts -- and none of them recently. Was he really arrested for his blogging activities? One theory was that Khalaifi was somehow involved in Facebook calls for a revolution to oust Emir Hamad Khalifa al-Thani, as his blog and the "Qatar Revolution" Facebook page contained some similar themes -- that the emir was corrupt and in league with the evil Americans and Israel, that his wife was too prominent, and so on. Khalaifi listed Sayyif Qutb's Milestones, a seminal Islamist tract, as his favorite book, so it seemed clear where his political leanings lay. [UPDATE: According to this Qatari blog, Khalaifi was released in April.]

In any event, I have no idea whether there's a link between today's Treasury announcement and the Khalaifi case, but the mention of Kuwari is certainly intriguing. Is he actually already in custody? If so, did he provide information on Khalil's (alleged) activities in Iran? And what explains Washington's motives for making this announcement today?

Leah Farrell, a leading al Qaeda expert based in Australia, tweeted that she was skeptical of the Treasury designation, and suggested it might be motivated by a U.S. desire to put pressure on Iran.

"Past reports have been poorly sourced and containing serious inaccuracies," she said. "I know about some of these people. They're not new and the reality is far more complex."

"This seems like a means of overcoming a lack of leverage against Iran releasing people."

More later.